A Rocket Ship to Pioneer Social Media in Politics
My career in politics was the rocket ship I never meant to board. 🚀
I knew I could talk persuasively and wanted to use that skill to be a prosecutor. After interning with a prosecutor, I realized it was more paper-pushing than Perry Mason; I hit the reset button. Like many, I graduated college having no real clue what to do next.
Back in Columbus, the capital of Ohio, I was introduced to a younger fraternity brother of Bob Seeger, my older brother. Over a really great steak dinner, this lobbyist sold me not only on the career of being in politics, but that I had also been a Republican my whole life.
A young journalist at AFF covered this story:
It took a conversation with a Republican friend of his brother’s “who wears pink and dresses well” to bring out the Republican within. “I didn’t even realize that kind of person existed. I thought everyone wore these red ties and white shirts and blue suits and really bad shoes.” But that’s not David All, who finds comfort in jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. Even at the office, he sports a casual white button-down shirt, no tie. The friend explained to All that the principles he admired, like free trade, were really Republican ideas. All decided that he must be a Republican, too, and the “sad thing” was he had been one his entire life.
“The single most important reason why I am a Republican is because of personal responsibility, through and through. It’s not because I remembered Ronald Reagan when I was nine years old, doing cannonballs and back flips and kick flips [at the public pool].”
And of those youngsters who claim to be Republicans because of Reagan: “I just think it’s so fake.”
All’s move toward politics was “a natural fit.” Originally set on a law career, he interned for a prosecutor and realized “how gross criminals are, and how dark that world is.” Politics better suited his charismatic demeanor and love of socializing: “I’m really into people, if you haven’t figured that out.”
Now Boarding a Rocket Ship
I took that lobbyist up on his kind offer to introduce me to the folks who hire young aides for Republican state representatives. My hire was quick and I was typing thank you letters and other administrative duties for Ann Womer Benjamin in no time.
Like I still do today, I started walking around every office meeting Republican consultants, going to their parties, and becoming a networked competent and smart utility.
In fact, when Ann Womer Benjamin (AWB) decided to run for state office and then Congress, I was tapped (with no experience) to lead the political campaign. Most of my colleagues were working on state rep or city council races; this was my first big leap frog in the industry.
I was on board this rocket ship and I instinctively knew how to make it go.
Next Stop: Washington, DC
Despite Ann’s tireless campaigning and my creative earned media strategies, we lost her campaign for Congress. (To Tim Ryan who has turned out a great member of Congress.)
Ironically, losses in politics are never seen as a bad thing. At least as long as it was clear you did everything possible to win.
I was fortunate to have the late U.S. Sen. George Voinovich and his staff come out to our race and witness our work ethic; particularly driving press and media attention.
Within a few months, my car was packed to the brim and I was moving to DC to work in the senators press office. Again with no formal experience, I consider this another huge leap in my career. I was 23 and had a serious title. Over the next 2.5 years, I was promoted from Dep. Communication Director to Speechwriter.
Sen. Voinovich won his re-election campaign that year by more votes than any candidate in the history of Ohio. This was practically a poke in my eye because I had been offered a job of the Bush Presidential campaign but was denied a leave.
I was never too salty but I started to yearn for more creative outlets in communication. For examples, I missed talking to reporters on the record about issues and pitching stories.
Now this is a Rocket Ship!
While I was working for Sen. Voinovich, I had worked to meet all the major players in the House and Senate. These were staffers for the Leadership and I considered them my mentors. In fact, I still look to Former Speaker Denny Hastert’s communication director, Ron Bonjean, as one of the most important people in my career.
When a position for House Republican Vice-Chairman Jack Kingston opened up, I got the call and the endorsement of most of those staffers.
The two years I worked for Jack was the real boost to get my rocket ship into outer space. I was Jack’s one leadership staffer, and we had a lot of responsibility and room to explore. Jack is a native communicator (a regular on Bill Maher) and was open to every idea I brought to the table.
We managed a weekly Theme Team group of 30-35 members that would have a breakfast and hear from a rockstar speaker like Kellyanne Conway, Newt Gingrich, Frank Luntz and many more. We also wrote 10-12 one-minute speeches daily on the topics we needed air cover on. And most importantly, we were the first to begin exploring all the new mediums like YouTube, blogs, and alternative media like Stephen Colbert.
Breaking the Mold of the Campaign Communicator
I was tapped to be the communication director for a U.S. Senate race in Michigan. They had a very little budget and not much of a chance, but had been watching my work.
So imagine August 2006 joining up a campaign and I’m rushed into a polling meeting to get briefed on the path to victory.
The TV consultants identify the three issues they’ll focus on for TV ads and I’m staring at the remaining 12 or so messages that move the audiences we need to win.
This messaging opportunity is the distilled essence of why I had always cared about social media: With the internet, we could reach an audience with limitless messages unbound by constraints of expensive advertising.
Again, this is obvious now but it wasn’t in 2006.
We were jabbing our opponent for ducking debates on YouTube everyday, asking grassroots bloggers for online financial support, building communities in Facebook (and Myspace), and had built the first ever campaign website on a Wordpress platform. Even linking to social media sites from our campaign website was seen as controversial — but I pushed it through.
A Social Media Agency for Politics
We lost this campaign which opened the door to entrepreneurship. I saw the power of the work I was doing; and also realized no one else was doing it.
I launched the David All Group (DAG) in January 2007 providing website, social media and all other online services like blogger outreach, email fundraising, etc.
We worked with wildly popular early web-adopters like Newt Gingrich, Jeff Flake, Tom Coburn, Peter Kinder, Marco Rubio and David Cameron in the UK. To actually pay the bills we worked with large think tanks and trade associations.
There is so much more to write about… quoted in ~200 articles about social media in politics, published in the NYT and others, the Joe Wilson “You Lie” crisis, my interactions with Barack Obama, and more.
This chapter could go on and on — but I want to tell those stories in other chapters.
But ultimately I stepped away from politics in the agency because the communication piece that I had pioneered was becoming overly crowded and nearly impossible to offer quality work.
And my loathe for TV consultants; their thirst for money was endless and I didn’t want to feed them anymore. Not one more dollar!
When I decided to walk away it was immediate. Reporters asking for quotes were pointed to younger consultants I wanted to support, and clients were also aligned with others.
The reality of taking a rocket ship to the moon and landing is that was the end of the road for me. I set my sights on much bigger industries and moved to San Francisco to work with Intel.
Now that is a story. But it’s one that relied on this one.